Foreign is Not So Far Away

February 23, 2016

Growing up in High Point, North Carolina, I had no concept of Asia or Asians, little of Europe (only from history class), and almost no exposure to recent immigrants in my small town.  In retrospect, it was as if America was an idyllic island and the problems of the world were remote. I knew there had been two world wars, but no one had really threatened us on our shores (aside from Pearl Harbor). “Foreign” was far, far away.

While my town has only grown modestly, it is not uncommon now to see Arab and Indian headdress or hijabs on the streets of High Point, and we have a beautiful Islamic Center. There are numerous Asian restaurants. Local furniture magnates have learned which of their stock is best supplied from China and how to use the unique woods of Tasmania.

In the meantime, between the 60’s and now, immense benefit and opportunity from globalization has arrived. But along with that,we are stumbling into a labyrinth of issues which cannot be solved by one country operating in only its best interest. These include the sharing of scarce global resources; concern for the global environment; proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; immigration; the complications and the winning and losing in global trade; and many others.

Unfortunately, we seem to have learned far too little about how to work collectively as a global world. It’s as if the race to expand capitalism pell mell globally has outrun our ability to anticipate the problems or to collectively agree on a set of rules, so that the results can be optimized and reasonably fair to all countries. Consider the struggle Europe is having over establishing an equitable sharing of the burden of refugees fleeing Syria. And, most of our “foreign” focus seems to be on which nation is a military threat, and how we can be strategically or militarily prepared and stronger than others. This seems true not only for the US, but for most other countries.

In our schools we teach listening, understanding others, collaborating, teamwork, compromise, sharing. In our universities, we often organize students into teams to work together to solve a problem. Such groups are now likely to include different races, religions, and nationalities. But such “teamwork” does not seem to extend to our foreign affairs. There is a resurgence of nationalistic and protectionist sentiment in many countries–Russia, England, Germany, France, and clearly also here in the US. Negative economic tides exacerbate such attitudes, as political leaders (e.g., Putin, Trump) are quick to blame our economic problems on another country. The stick is being wielded liberally and aggressively, and anyone suggesting a carrot is branded weak. “Leadership” is defined in terms of aggression and power, seldom in terms of collaboration and mutual concern.

The current issue of The Economist includes an example. The Mekong River runs through six countries, starting high in Tibet and reaching the ocean in Cambodia. China has 14 dams planned on the Mekong, to augment the 6 they already have. Laos has 9 planned, and Cambodia plans 2, all for the hydroelectric power they can generate. But dams restrict the flow of migratory fish, and restrain the flow of sediment which feeds the farm soil of the river basins. All of this means that there is desperate need for collaboration and restraint, but the Mekong River Commission is underfunded, understaffed, and is not subscribed to by all Mekong River countries. A major disaster is potentially in the making for the millions of people dependent on the Mekong, due to lack of collaboration, and absence of a comprehensive regional best outcome objective. Should China care what happens downriver? I think so.

The examples of damage are not all outside the US. Consider our attitude toward Mexican immigrants to the US. Most of our rhetoric is focused on building a bigger wall. Is there any room for political collaboration with Mexico to enable increasing the flow of law abiding immigrants and/or helping Mexico to create better opportunities for them there? Marco Rubio ducks the question by saying we cannot talk about better US/Mexico immigration policy until we have a better wall. Why not? If we had such a program, maybe we wouldn’t need a bigger wall.

I’m hoping for progress toward realization that we need to change our attitude. We’re not just Americans anymore. The US has spearheaded a rapid acceleration of globalization in support of our quest for profits, wealth, and economic growth. If that’s something we really want to happen, we can’t ignore the major consequences to our planet. We can’t ignore the plight of those who happen to be in the path of the raging torrent of economic progress we fuel.

Ian Brimmer and Nouriel Robini describe a “G Zero” world where the US has no longer the unilateral power nor the will to lead the world singlehandedly. Existing global organizations also lack the power and structure. Neither the G2, G7, G8, nor G20 seem capable of arranging order and fairness in the world. They forecast growing chaos and conflict if we don’t find a collaborative solution.

“Foreign affairs” doesn’t seem to capture it. Maybe “global affairs” doesn’t either. We need a change of attitude and maybe a new term. And, we can’t attach all the blame to politicians like Trump and Putin. We, the citizens of these nations are allowing, even encouraging, a myopic view. And we are the ones who will have to pay the consequences.

As to the US, it should be clear to all by now that we cannot and should not seek to unilaterally lead the world by making all the decisions. The balance of world power is defined by economic, military, and ideological comparison. Any ranking of those criteria shows its a very different world than it was in 1989. We have to collaborate with other nations. But if the US is the driver of globalization, trade, and financialization, we need to accept that along with our pursuit of such objectives must go responsibility to concern ourselves with the impact of our capitalistic campaigns on others.

“Foreign” is not as far away as we might sometimes hope, and it is getting closer every day.

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